Babies are reading newspapers online. Or at least that is what we would be forced to believe if the latest Nielsen Net Ratings are taken seriously.

The figures, released just over a week ago, show extraordinary increases in the numbers of unique browsers of the most popular online news websites. According to Nielsen the six top daily newspapers between them have almost 13 million unique viewers per month within Australia. Keep in mind total population is only 21 million. The population aged over 14 years is 15.92 million.

I understand that Nielsen quotes a market aggregate figure of 16.3 million for Australians accessing news and weather sites each month. Meaning that we are all doing it. All this while circulation of the hard copies of the nation’s newspapers is stagnant or in decline.

Well, hallelujah. Newspaper organisations are saved.

If you can believe it, and you shouldn’t.

This recent report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority tells us that 16.8% of Australians over the age of 14 have never used the Internet at all. Also, it reveals that accessing news is fifth on the list of things for which people use the Internet, behind e-mail, banking and paying bills.

Yet do the maths using the Nielsen figures and you’re left with the conclusion that almost all Australians over the age of 14 visit one of six main newspaper web sites each month. Either that or individual readers are accessing the websites of several newspapers many times. Or else babies love to read newspapers online.

Nielsen’s did not return calls asking for comment this morning.

The significance of all this, of course, is that online consumption of news is meant to be one of the bright futures for journalism. But is it?

In my little parcel of useful leaks I have the lists of top stories on the Age website, as taken in to news conferences to guide decisions. The strange thing is that the daily visit and page view numbers for the top stories are surprisingly low.

For example, on the 13 April a story about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s globe trotting was top of the pops, yet attracted only 19,150 visitors. The next day a story about the new female Governor General came top with only 21,781 visitors.

There may be several explanations. Perhaps there is a “long tail” of less popular stories that are nevertheless cumulatively making up the bulk of the figures. If this is right, then it suggests that newsroom decisions based on “top of the pops” are pretty short sighted, since it is the many visitors to less popular sites that make up the bulk of traffic.

Therefore news organisations ought to be aiming for more, and possibly more in depth content. The audiences may be niche, but added together they are significant. The problem is, on a free-to-air advertising supported model, niche audiences will hardly bring in enough revenue to pay for the specialised journalism they demand.

Perhaps the more likely explanation is that the figures trumpeted to advertisers and shareholders are bunkum.

All the methods for measuring the appetite for journalism have question marks over them.

I’ve written previously about the increasing divergence between circulation and readership figures, something that was also notable in the figures released last week. For example, readership of The Australian Financial Review was down, while circulation was up! Go figure.

Circulation figures of the hardcopy editions of newspapers are probably more robust than they used to be, but are built on heavy discounting.

Newsagents are reportedly paid full tote odds for the copies delivered to gyms, students and school staff rooms under discount deals that cost the reader as little as $20 a year. This means newsagents have an incentive to get as many people signed up for the cheap subscription deals as possible. In fact, newsagents can still make a profit even if they pay the $20 themselves on behalf of the reader.

All this means that when we ask questions about the future of journalism we have very few reliable methods by which to judge what people want, need and are prepared to pay for.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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